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‘Degas’ at Legion of Honor reveals dynamic impressionist millinery scene

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Edgar Degas’ “The Milliners” is a highlight of “Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” at the Legion of Honor. (Courtesy Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

“Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade” at the Legion of Honor illustates how hats were wardrobe essentials in late-19th-century Paris, and shops selling fashionable hats were places to be.

Fascinated by the booming trade, artists frequently painted the millinery scene; the exhibition of 40 paintings and pastel works by Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt, Edouard Manet and other notables, along with 40 remarkable hats created by premier milliners, examines impressionism’s substantial interest in millinery themes.

The exhibit, organized by Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and the Saint Louis Art Museum, explores new aspects of works by major artists and examines the function of hats as art pieces, commodities and statements of social status.

Degas is the primary focus. Best known for his ballerina paintings and drawings, the impressionist giant and self-described realist created more than two dozen pictures of millinery subjects.

Fellow artist Paul Gauguin has been quoted as saying that Degas “dared to go into ecstasies” when in front of millinery establishments.
Degas indeed makes the scene enticing in his largest painting in the show, “The Millinery Shop“ (1879-1886), in which a woman examines one of six elaborately decorated hats.

The abstracted, flattened forms in “The Milliners” (1898), a reddish-toned late-career Degas work, reflect the evolution of his style as modern-era sensibilities were taking hold. Two milliners, artists both, go about their work in this thoughtfully presented, quietly extraordinary painting.

Manet’s “At the Milliner’s” is an exhibit highlight. As can happen with Manet, mystery surrounds the painting’s central figure. Why is she wearing no hat? Speculation has varied widely.

James Tissot’s “The Shop Girl” (1883-85) places the viewer inside a ribbon-filled haberdashery, where a young woman holds the door open. Outside, a man looks through the window toward another girl. His possibly lustful expression raises questions about society’s view of workingwomen.

Exemplifying the hat world’s visual appeal, Pierre-Georges Jeanniot’s “At the Milliner’s” (1900) shows a fashionable woman eyeing three hats. They look so sumptuous that they slightly upstage the sitter.

Other notable works include Mary Cassatt’s “Portrait of Madame J (Young Woman in Black)” (1883), which features a woman in a veiled, plumed creation, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s personality-rich “M. Delaporte at the Jardin de Paris” (1893), from a small assortment of men’s hats.

Elaborate period hats on display contain plumes, lace ribbons and botanically correct artificial flowers.

They range from stylishly elegant to, by 21st-century standards, utterly insane (and aren’t always animal-friendly).

Featured 19th-century millinery stars — women considered true artists during hat-making’s golden age — include Maison Virot, Camille Marchais and Jeanne Lanvin.

Degas, Impressionism, and the Paris Millinery Trade
Where: Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Ave., S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; through Sept. 24
Tickets: $10 to $28
Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.famsf.org

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